Boston teachers took to the streets Thursday to press city officials to keep school buildings closed this fall, one day after Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced plans to delay the opening day for students until Sept. 21.
Black clergy also wrote to Cassellius and Mayor Martin J. Walsh, urging them not to reopen classrooms and to continue with remote learning at home, saying it was necessary to ensure the safety of students, school staff, and their families, according to a copy provided to the Globe this week.
“We do not make this request lightly, recognizing both the nuance and complexities of our current discourse, however, we do believe that it is the right thing to do for all interested parties,” the clergy wrote, noting the “COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”
The mounting pressure to keep buildings shuttered came one day before school officials were supposed to file final reopening plans with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. School officials are torn between starting the school year with remote-only instruction and doing a mix of in-person and remote learning.
If school officials reopen school buildings, most students would report to classrooms two days a week and would learn remotely on the other days. Parents would have the option of keeping their children at home for full-time remote learning. School officials have ruled out a full-time return, deeming it unfeasible for maintaining physical distancing due to the space constraints in many buildings.
Scores of teachers departed Thursday afternoon from Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury in a caravan that twisted its way to City Hall for a rally. Teachers decorated their vehicles with signs and slogans, including messages like “Keep our students safe.”
Cecil Carey, a teacher who helped livestream the event, told viewers on Facebook that he and his colleagues would prefer to spend their time this summer preparing a robust remote curriculum than rallying in the streets.
“We should not have to come together just to keep our students safe,” he said. “We should be spending this month figuring out how we can do remote learning best for all our students and how we can support the most vulnerable students in our classrooms.”
At City Hall Plaza, union members and other supporters shouted chants, including “Hey hey ho ho, the hopscotch plan has got to go” and “Six feet apart, not six feet under.”
Jessica Tang, the union’s president, urged Walsh and Cassellius to end the school-reopening debate and go with remote learning.
“We’re asking the district and the city to immediately declare that we can start remote so we can take this time to prepare and plan for a high-quality remote experience,” Tang said in a video recorded for attendees before the rally and played on Facebook.
Support for the different school reopening plans varies across the city, even within demographic groups.
Parents of children with disabilities are split, said Roxi Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council. She said some parents have reported that their children had a good experience with remote learning in the spring, but others said their children were denied services.
“There are children and families in complete crisis,” she said. “I hear a lot of people say: I can go to a casino, the gym, get my hair and nails done, but my kid can’t go to school? Hmm.”
If the school year opens remotely, Harvey said, school officials must devise a plan for students with disabilities who require one-one-one support, such as occupational therapy, so they can still receive those services. That could be achieved, she said, by opening some schools specifically for those services or having specialists work in another community setting or in a student’s home.
The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, chair of the COVID-19 Clergy Coalition and a signer of the letter urging a remote start, said he thinks having students return to school buildings even part time would be a mistake, especially since so many schools have old and inadequate ventilation systems.
“Because it’s affecting our families disproportionately, we think this is not the right thing to do,” he said in a phone interview. “Do you really want to send these children into school who may be asymptomatic or have the virus transmitted to them while they are there? Many of the caretakers of our children are grandparents.”
School officials, Culpepper said, should seize this opportunity to make Boston the country’s capital of remote learning, noting there are many esteemed universities in the area that could help.
But he also said school officials have to come up with a way to safely provide one-on-one support for students with disabilities who need it.
Walsh and Cassellius said that a number of factors will drive their ultimate decision-making, including COVID-19 infection rates, which differ by neighborhood and complicate the decision. It’s not clear when they will choose a plan.
“The Boston Public Schools (BPS) continues to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of our students, staff and families in our preparations for the new school year,” said Xavier Andrews, a school spokesman, in a statement.
School officials announced plans to change the opening day for students at a City Council hearing held virtually Wednesday night.
Students were initially going to return Sept. 10. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is allowing districts to postpone opening days and reduce the number of instructional days from 180 to 170 to provide educators with more training on how to conduct lessons online.
Teachers would report to work on their original start date of Sept. 8 and receive more extensive training.
Boston school officials still need state approval to postpone opening day. That’s because the state, in granting local districts relief on the 180-day rule, wanted classes to begin by Sept. 16 and would grant extensions only on a case-by-case basis.
The request to shorten the school year followed a scathing state review earlier this year that found wide-ranging problems across the school district, prompting state officials to order it to boost student performance.